The Racist Demonisation of Sadiq Khan
The treatment of London's Mayor by conservative politicians and media outlets reveals an ugly truth about modern Britain
Anyone who wonders whether Britain still has a significant problem with racism only needs to look at the treatment of Sadiq Khan.
From the very start of his 2016 bid to become Mayor of London, Khan was the victim of blatant and systematic prejudice from the Conservative campaign.
In Conservative leaflets Khan, who until that point was known as a middle-of-the-road, soft-left former Transport Minister, was branded "radical" and "divisive".
Attempts to smear Khan by association with Islamists, due to his former work as a human rights lawyer, dominated the Goldsmith campaign, with Michael Gove even going so far as to imply that he would implement Sharia law if elected Mayor. These attacks continued, even after I revealed that Goldsmith had met and supported some of the same people he was trying to associate Khan with.
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In areas with high numbers of non-Muslim, ethnic minority voters, the Conservatives sent out leaflets warning that Khan would put their family jewellery at risk. And on the eve of the election Goldsmith penned an article for the Daily Mail accompanied by a large photo of a blown-up London bus, with a headline suggesting that a vote for Khan would put the city into the hands of a party that “thinks terrorists are its friends”.
As someone who spent a long time following both candidates, Goldsmith’s campaign was without doubt the most disgraceful that I have ever witnessed, and it was one that was supported from the grassroots of the party, right up to the Prime Minister himself.
For all the debate over racism in politics over recent years, it has never ceased to amaze me how little attention it has received that the party of Government ran such a blatantly Islamaphobic and bigoted campaign, with zero apparent consequences for any of the senior figures involved.
Yet while the aftermath of the campaign did lead to some soul searching among isolated figures in the party, the London mayor remained a disproportionately large target for right-wing politicians and media outlets. In fact almost as soon as he entered City Hall, attempts were made to blame him for knife crime rates in London, despite almost entirely ignoring the dog-whistle subject for the eight years his predecessor Boris Johnson ran the city.
When the then US president Donald Trump joined the attacks, Khan experienced a surge in racist abuse and death threats. Unlike Khan’s predecessor, who was free to cycle around the city alone and unharmed, London’s new mayor soon required constant police protection.
This demonisation of Khan has, if anything, only got worse, with the Conservatives now relentlessly targeting him for implementing the very same clean air policies that were first introduced and championed by their own Mayor and Government.
But whether it’s telling voters that he plans to take their jewellery, or take their cars, this constant focus on the one regional politician in the country who just happens to be a Muslim man of Pakistani heritage, is deeply worrying.
It is not difficult to understand the potential dangers of this. Earlier this week the former Conservative donor and adviser to David Cameron, Charlie Mullins was suspended from Twitter for urging people to “kill” Khan and “dump the Muslim Mayor.”
Yet rather than condemn these disgraceful comments inciting the killing of a senior UK politician, just years after two other MPs were murdered in the country, the press reaction has been incredibly muted.
Across Fleet Street, Mullins’ suspension received little comment, while on Twitter, the News UK owned TalkTV channel posted a Tweet asking their viewers whether it had been an “overreaction” by the social media network. Their Tweet, which has since been deleted, was succeeded by an interview with Mullins on the channel in which his comments were brushed off with a headline in which he admitted having gone “too far” with his comments.
Yet while Mullins’ comments were an extreme example of the demonisation of Khan, they are only a logical extension of the overall tenor of the relentless political and media attacks on the London mayor.
Of course no politician is exempt from criticism and there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be made of Khan and his policies, just as there can be of every other elected politician. Yet the tone, manner, frequency and prominence of the attacks on Khan have clearly gone well beyond what is justifiable.
The appointment of Rishi Sunak to Downing Street, along with the senior positions given to other ethnic minority politicians, such as Suella Braverman, led some commentators to claim that racism is no longer a significant factor in British politics.
Even in its own terms this is wrong. Both Sunak and Braverman have also been victims of racism, even if that racism has not been officially sanctioned by a major political party and its media supporters.
However, it is the dangerous and ongoing demonisation of Khan that really shows that claim out to be the lie that it so obviously is.
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